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Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: America’s two paths

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

The federal budget battle is escalating into a war over the role government plays in relation to free enterprise. President Obama desires the feds to invest and grow jobs through research. To shrink the deficit, those with high-paying jobs and ample investments are asked to pay higher taxes.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., demands budgetary restraints by cutting government programs, especially affecting the poor. He believes the economy will grow by downsizing federal entitlements. Invest and grow the economy with more government. Or cut taxes and grow the economy with reduced government. These are polarizing convictions.

This war of words over the relationship between government and free enterprise is as old as our country. The Constitution, when it established government to promote the common good, didn’t precisely define how federal regulation and unharnessed business should co-exist.

President Obama believes his job is to make our country a place where fair opportunity flourishes. He wants to diminish income disparity and help the disadvantaged play on a more level economic field.

“The common good is taking a beating,” declares Professor Gary Dorrien, who teaches ethics and public policy at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. The poor are beaten down because the rich have devoured bigger slices of the financial pie.

In his new book, “Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice,” Dorrien statistically shows how economic inequality has run roughshod over the U.S. since the Reagan presidency.

“One percent of the U.S. population holds between 34 and 39 percent of the nation’s wealth; the top 5 percent hold between 55 and 72 percent of the wealth; and the bottom 50 percent hold 2 percent of the wealth. The share of America’s income held by the top 1 percent of the population has more than doubled since 1980, while the bottom 90 percent has, since 1975, coped with flat wages and mounting debt.”

Obama, invigorated by Christian faith, practices the biblical command to be “openhanded toward those of your people who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

The president combines budget planning with strong character as he measures needs of indigent citizens, even if this means that the wealthy take a greater financial hit. He’s not indecisive but careful when dealing with the deficit. The president likes to move at a deliberate pace. He doesn’t count on bumper-sticker rhetoric to solve budget challenges. President Obama understands how the government functions as an aid for social good. He sounds like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used government regulation to restrain free-market capitalism’s excesses.

Biographer Jean Edward Smith in “FDR” describes a way of governing that Obama shares with the architect of the New Deal.

Writing about Roosevelt, Smith tells us that “with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan (who voted for FDR four times), no president has been more serene in the conviction that whatever happened, everything would turn out all right. ‘Take a method and try it,’ he (FDR) once said. ‘If it fails, admit it and try another. But above all, try something.'” Smith continues: “Social Security, unemployment compensation, stock market regulation, the federal guarantee of bank deposits, wages and hours legislation, labor’s right to bargain collectively, agricultural price supports, rural electrification – all of which we take for granted – did not exist before FDR.”

Conservatives rejected these policies as examples of the intrusive power of big government. In 1936, the Republican Party platform lamented, “America is in peril. The welfare of American men and women and the future of our youth are at stake. We dedicate ourselves to the preservation of their political liberty, their individual opportunity and their character as free citizens, which today, for the first time, is threatened by the government itself.”Conservatives use similar scare tactics today when they promote the Ryan budget. They want to shrink the deficit by curtailing programs for low-income families, such as Medicaid, food stamps and children’s health insurance.

At the same time, these conservatives don’t want to disturb tax breaks for the rich. They regard military spending as too important for cuts. Most of the burden for reducing the intrusive power of government comes from slashing social welfare. People with little voice in Washington’s corridors of power are muffled. What is government’s role as it shapes the common good?

Retreating to an 18th century form of government, when the population was smaller and national needs were less, is a fantasy the tea party endorses. But such a hankering leaves a bitter aftertaste in mouths of those who need the government’s services for shelter, food and a chance at education.

Government protects, defends and broadens the common good. Citizens from every economic sector who practice free enterprise are key players in starting an economic rebound. Government opens doors so that others besides the wealthy share in the common good.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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